Towards the end of August the Kingdom of Brunei will host top defense officials from the ASEAN member states and eight “plus” countries under the aegis of the Asian Defense Minister Meeting Plus (ADMM Plus). Ordinarily, on the crowded Asian-Pacific geopolitical calendar, such a gathering would not attract much attention. But that would be a mistake, for the ADMM-Plus represents what is possibly the last, and best, opportunity in the region's long quest for creating a functional security architecture. Paradoxically, the manner in which it is currently imagined runs the risk that it will be irrelevant in the near future.
The inaugural meeting of the ADMM-Plus (comprising ten ASEAN countries plus eight others: Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Russia and the United States) was held in 2010 in Hanoi. The meeting in Brunei is only the second time that the ADMM-Plus will convene but, indicative of its importance, henceforth it will meet every two years instead of three years as originally planned.
At the first meeting it was resolved that the ADMM-Plus would focus on five priority areas of cooperation: humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR), medicine, maritime security, peacekeeping and counter-terrorism. In fact, the main focus over the last few years has been on HADR and military medicine, which led, in June 2013, to a unique military exercise in Brunei involving seven ships, 15 helicopters and around 3200 personnel from 18 different countries. The fact that ships and forces from countries like Japan, China, Singapore, the U.S., Vietnam and India, among others were working together was no small feat, prompting Admiral Locklear, the Chief of the US Pacific Command, to call it a “substantial” achievement. Indeed, this highlighted the potential for ADMM-Plus to emerge as the forum where militaries of the extended region get to know each other and engage in confidence-building measures. This has been a dream, especially for the ASEAN countries that have been keen to induct extra-regional powers into the “ASEAN-way.”Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
If the ADMM-Plus has achieved so much in such a short time, how could it be irrelevant in the future? The problems lie in the area where progress has been most limited: maritime security. While the emphasis on non-traditional security for the first few years was completely appropriate and an important familiarization and confidence-building measure, militaries, by definition, do not train, equip and prepare primarily for these missions. Hence, despite having an Expert Working Group on maritime security, tangible progress has been scant. In fact even if such basic confidence-building measures like establishing hotlines there has been only tortured progress and no certainty that this will change anytime soon.
Part of the problem is that ASEAN does not wish to entangle itself in the numerous territorial disputes in the South China Sea and so avoids this topic altogether. While this might sound reasonable, if ADMM-Plus proves unable to provide security then, inevitably, countries will explore alternate arrangements. Hence the U.S. rebalancing has largely been welcomed and has been accompanied by a pronounced “tilt” (in varying degrees) towards the U.S. from countries like Vietnam, Myanmar and Philippines.